Monday, June 25, 2012

Book Club: "Lost Horizon"

For the first time in a long while all the members of our small neighborhood book club were present and everyone had read the book. It proved to be one of our better discussions.

Hilton, perhaps best known as the author of Goodbye, Mr. Chips, published Lost Horizon in 1933. It introduced Shangri-La, which has become synonymous with utopia. It's been decades since I first read Lost Horizon, and ages since I'd seen the 1937 movie on television. Over the years I had mashed the two together, so rereading the book was an eye opener.

The story is framed by a gathering of old school friends as narrated by an unnamed (until the end of the novel) member of the group. The narrator and Rutherford, one of the schoolmates turned novelist, later continue the discussion in private. The intriguing subject of the novel is Hugh Conway, a former school mate of the friends who had been admired as a student and was hailed as a hero during a revolution in the near east. As British Consul in Baskul, Conway had assured the safe evacuation of British citizens from the area. He was also involved in a fantastic episode related by Rutherford that becomes the basis of the novel.

Conway, his young Vice Consul Captain Mallinson, British missionary Roberta Brinklow, and American Henry Barnard board a custom-built airplane owned by a Maharajah among the last to flee Baskul. Without their knowledge the airplane is hijacked and instead of escaping to Peshawar they are flown high into the Himilayan Mountains where the plane crashes in a high valley. They are rescued by the locals and taken to a lamasery called Shangri-La where they discover a paradise on earth. The secret valley enjoys a quirk of microclimate that provides for the farming of crops not associated with the frozen mountains. The lamasery is serene, elegant, and tranquil. The pace is leisurely yet busy. Their host is Chang, one of the lamas in training, who answers many of their questions about Shangri-La, but cannot provide key information. Conway is enchanted with the location. Miss Brinklow and Mr. Barnard are uncomfortable about their predicament at first but soon succumb to its charms. But young Mallinson is eager to return to civilization. The lamasery hosts a variety of people,  but most intriguing is the beautiful young Lo-Tsen to whom both Conway and Mallinson are attracted. Eventually Conway meets the High Lama who tells him of the unusual proviso of Shangri-La that receives guests but does not allow them to leave. The High Lama also informs him that certain of the residents are far older that they appear to be.

The tale is twice removed from the events at Shangri-La, as it is the narrator's retelling of the story told to him by Rutherford based on his long conversation with Conway. This distance allows for doubt about the events and makes for fascinating conversation.

The book is a study in contrasts:  youth (Mallinson) versus experience (Conway), moderation versus passion, free will versus confinement (even in paradise). Conway is a veteran of the Great War (WW I) and it affected him greatly. Although he acted heroically at Baskul, he appears perfectly content to accept a passive existence at the lamasery to escape the memories of war and pressures of politics. Young Mallinson, unlike his older companions, chafes under the lack of action and cannot comprehend why  take-charge Conway has become so passionless and inert. Although Shangri-La is a paradise, several thousand inhabitants of the valley and lamasery live under the control of the High Lama and his order. The extended lifespan of many residents contributes to the slow pace, while the English and Americans are described as charging around the world in a state of continual and preposterous fever-heat.

Was James Hilton prescient? We found it interesting that the novel addressed issues that are still affecting us today. For example, Henry Barnard turns out to be Chalmers Bryant who is wanted for banking and Wall Street irregularities. With reference to Baskul, Delhi, London, American banking, war making, and empire building "...the whole game's going to pieces." The High Lama warned of the Coming Storm when there would be no safety in arms, no answer in science, it will cover the whole world in a pall, and result in a long age of desolation. When the book was published in 1933, Hitler's invasion of Poland was only six years away. When asked why the residents of the valley and the lamasery do not vote Chang responded that they would be shocked by having to declare that one policy was completely right and another completely wrong. A declaration that has our politicians stymied.

Conway and his companions left Baskul in the hijacked plane on May 20. On October 5 he arrived in Chung-Kiang with amnesia accompanied by a very old Chinese woman. Did Shangri-La and the secret mountain valley really exist? What happened to Mallinson during the trek out of the mountains? Was the old woman Lo-Tsen who had lost her youth on leaving the lamasery? Conway later admitted to Rutherford that he did not know whether he had been mad and was now sane, or had been sane for a time and was now mad again. Had Conway, as Mallinson charged, believed what Chang and the High Lama told him without evidence because, like most of us, he was inclined to that he found most attractive? Was Shangri-La a heavenly refuge? Or was it hell, as Mallinson found it?

You decide.

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